Listeners' Language Concerns Some listeners write to criticize NPR's use and misuse of language. Some even apologize for pointing out what they feel are minutiae. But if NPR can't get the little things right, what does that say about the accuracy of the bigger issues?
NPR logo Listeners' Language Concerns

Listeners' Language Concerns

Many listeners write to comment on the life-and-death issues that NPR covers every day: the war in Iraq, the Schiavo case or the Red Lake shootings, to name a recent few.

Some listeners also write to criticize NPR's use and misuse of language. Some even apologize for pointing out what they feel are minutiae. But I think their concerns are important for a number of reasons:

First, NPR needs to get the little things right. If it can't, what does that say about the accuracy of the bigger issues?

Second, errors of grammar and usage tend to break the listener's concentration. If a listener stops to wonder if he or she really heard an error or a syntactical lapse, then whatever else the reporter or announcer was saying is lost because the listener's train of thought has been derailed.

I have a small backlog of these complaints. The press of news has been so great that I have hesitated to mix the deadly serious with what may appear to be the trivial or whimsical. But language issues are always very important for NPR listeners, so here are a few of them.

Translator or Interpreter?

I'm writing concerning the use of the word translator. In the world of professional translation and interpretation, a translator is a person who renders the written word from one language to another, while an interpreter renders the spoken word from one language to another. Likewise, a translation is a written document. Interpreters perform interpretation at a press meeting, U.N. conference, etc.

Rachel Christopherson

Mass or Service?

This morning, NPR mentioned Pope John Paul wouldn't be presiding over Holy Thursday Mass. It is my understanding that the Catholic Church does not celebrate "Mass" on Holy Thursday. On Holy Thursday, the church has a service.

Jessica Guagliardo

Soldiers, Marines or Troops?

Please folks -- this morning in the 25-minute drive to my office I TWICE heard reports on which your reporters misused "troops" for "soldiers," a misuse that I have already heard several times too many on Morning Edition AND All Things Considered. No, no, no! Troops are composed of many, many soldiers. The new monument for soldiers killed in Iraq has some 1,200 pictures of individual soldiers, not troops! On average, an Army troop has some 100 soldiers. Not by any count has the US lost 120,000 soldiers in Iraq. Please do not continue to propagate this dreadful misuse of the English language. It is bad enough that the regular press does it at every turn -- NPR should hold itself to a higher standard!

Terri Joshi

[Ombudsman's Note: Ms. Joshi's note contrasts with e-mails I receive from Marines and ex-Marines who object everytime NPR refers indiscriminately to the military in Iraq as "soldiers." "Troops" has become the all-purpose description of the men and women in uniform. Don't get the USMC upset…]

Literally or Figuratively?

Yesterday on my drive home around 6 p.m. EST I was listening to NPR news. The reporter was apparently in the middle of a segment on health care. He said that for some people "Medicare was literally their lifeline." That is a shocking misuse of ‘literal,' something that I hear frequently on television and radio news reporting. The correct thing to say would be, "Medicare is their virtual lifeline." To say ‘literal' implies that Medicare is a rope or a cord on a boat to which sailors can cling to prevent them from falling into the water. Medicare is like a lifeline; it is a figurative lifeline. Your reporter has a fundamental misunderstanding of the distinction between the literal and the figurative. And that, sir, is gross linguistic incompetence in anyone, and for a reporter and the station that puts him on the air it is inexcusable…

David McNaron


...on All Things Considered, the announcer was doing a story on a last-second shot at the Minnesota high school tourney. The player was lying on his back on the floor when the ball came to him. He shot from that position and, according to the announcer who did the story on NPR, "He sunk it!" To drive the point home, he repeated a moment later, "He sunk it!"

The following day, a Morning Edition announcer did a story on the difficulty of training linemen to work on high voltage wire. Originally the group of trainees numbered about 100, but after drug tests and educational requirements," the group shrunk... after the strenuous physical training began,... the group shrunk even more... "

Have the writers and the announcers, both professional language users, forgotten how to conjugate strong English verbs?

Chuck Avery

Commercial Placement on NPR?

In the last two weeks I've noticed three stories that incorporate store names or brand names in ways that border on free advertising. It bothers me and seems to be happening across the three main news programs: Target is the place for teenagers to buy a diary, according to Jacki Lyden; Arista makes a nice cheap Chinese western boot according to the reporter on the closing of the western wear store on ATC, and now we learn from a Scott Simon interview this morning that Home Depot is the place to go to meet other singles. If I were an editor at NPR, I would discourage if not ban this practice. Is there a policy? Or might the editors take a closer look at this practice?

Jessie Lind

Mass Weddings, Perhaps?

Why worry about a "ban on marriage between same-sex couples?" Couples don't usually try to marry each other. Yet this is what I heard more than once on Morning Edition this morning. When bad grammar interferes with comprehension it's a problem, and I hear this kind of problem on ME most days. A little editing would not hurt.

David Kopaska-Merkel

Disrespected or Disrespect?

I've been listening to NPR since its inception, and have come to rely upon your careful language as you report on our world, but you slipped up recently -- BIG TIME. One of your newer voices on Weekend Edition used the grating neologism, disrespected. I'm not known as a stodgy, old professor at California State University, Fresno; in fact, students in my English Composition courses think I'm pretty cool for an old guy -- despite that I teach them to respect words and their power. Don't let your staff be so disrespectful to English.

I mean no disrespect to you,

Shel Krongaus

Try Sprinkling Some Salt…

I was fascinated by the story... that there was a patch of ice on Mars. I was trying to judge the credibility of the story and was just about convinced the reporter was right -- until he talked about earthquakes on Mars.

Any good scientist knows there are NO earthquakes on Mars. Marsquakes, maybe.

David Davia

Those are just a few of them. I'll try to be more diligent about reporting NPR's language lapses as noticed by the listeners, if only the news wouldn't get in the way…